Sophisticated, coolly imaginative, and genre-carefree, Delphine Gleize’s debut feature Carnage has the organic shape and elliptical flux of a short-story collection twisted like a cruller. Serendipitous fate has been lately overused as a narrative plan; Paul Thomas Anderson may’ve burned up the idea’s pint-sized tank of propane all by himself. But Gleize doesn’t give the gimmick emotional primacy—she’s too busy mustering uncanny images and conjuring more mysterious connections, visually and thematically. A single cut says it all: As a little epileptic girl named Winnie (Raphaëlle Molinier) raptly watches, a young torero (Julien Lescarret) duels with a looming, incensed half-ton bull on TV. Suddenly, a giant black dog walks between the camera and the child and climbs up on the couch: For a chilly moment, you’d swear the bull had entered the room, and the lingering sense of danger doesn’t fade.
Gleize has clearly made a thorough study of Claire Denis’s abstracted semi-narratives. But her symbolic flair is wilder: The individual stories are connected, at first, by that bull which, after goring the young bullfighter, is butchered and disseminated in pieces throughout Europe. A skittish young actress (Chiara Mastroianni) takes a job hawking the animal’s giant bones in a supermarket as dog treats. (Of course, the epileptic girl’s dog gets one, spurring other intersections.) A distracted, philandering French scientist (Jacques Gamblin), whose wife is spectacularly pregnant, receives the eyes in his lab. An asocial taxidermist receives the horns from his doting mother. A distraught Spanish mother (Ángela Molina), dining with the grown daughter she’s struggling to keep secrets from, orders toro en rioja in a restaurant.
Carnage is filthy with details more memorable than the dramatic grit of its characters: the bull’s head hanging out the back of a truck-bed on a Spanish highway, strangers cradling each other in an inner-child pool class, the remarkable pan from floor-sprawled dead dog to a mantelful of bobble-headed dog figurines to a pensive dinner party featuring . . . more meat. (The movie’s original title is Carnages.) Dead flesh is a ruling motif, but Gleize’s airy, observant personality makes even the graphic dismemberment of the bull, scored with flamenco stomps, buoyant and fascinating.
Gleize has written the daylights out of her movie, but only in terms of metaphor and visual invention. Her people, however warmed up by the cast (Mastroianni has no substance to work with, but she eats up her screen time like a woodchuck), are thin contraptions, exercising notions of neurosis and muddled grace under pressure. Although Gamblin rescues his flighty nowhere man with his natural sympathetic glow (particularly once the scientist’s wife gives birth), only Molina’s high-boiling femme makes sense—the pieces of her bizarre behavior don’t fit together but, as we eventually learn, they never could.
It’s not unreasonable to ask what all of the sublime fuss of Carnage is really all about. Fatefully-intertwining-lives scenarios always spend more profundity than they earn, even if they’re spoked around the decidedly meaty residue of death. Gleize’s movie harbors scads of set-pieces that cross the border into pretension, including an encounter-group choir of burn victims, an organ transplant—knew that was coming—and little Winnie’s donning of electrically illuminated bull’s horns. For a first film, Carnage is a bright and nervy achievement (and a Prix de la Jeunesse winner at Cannes), but one viewer’s deep-dish symbology is another’s unharnessed self-consciousness.